09272013Headline:

Pilot error likely to blame for crash of Russian ‘ghost plane,’ investigators say

SEROV, RUSSIA (BNO NEWS) -- Pilot error is likely to blame for the crash of a small plane that vanished after an unauthorized take-off in western Russia and remained missing for nearly a year, only for the wreckage to be discovered a few kilometers from where it took off, investigators said Thursday.

The single-engine Antonov An-2 aircraft went missing at around 11 p.m. local time on June 11, 2012, after it took off without permission from air traffic control from a small airstrip in Serov, a mining town in Sverdlovsk Oblast. The small plane, carrying 13 people, had been leased by its owner to monitor forest fires in the region and took off without its co-pilot and mechanic, adding to the mystery.

The aircraft was discovered missing by the co-pilot and mechanic when they returned from a short trip to Serov, and it remains unclear why the pilot and his passengers decided to leave. Some officials previously noted the possibility that the aircraft was 'hijacked' by drunken revelers to celebrate the extended holiday weekend with a fishing trip, but other officials emphasized it is unknown if anyone was drunk.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee, said on Thursday that it had received the final report from the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) which investigates air crashes. It blames the cause of the crash on pilot error, although other agencies have not yet concluded their investigations.

"According to the commission's conclusion, the cause of the crash was that the pilot of the plane made a flight at the altitude much lower than the safe one, which caused the plane to collide with a tree and fall to the ground," Markin said, emphasizing that additional investigations will determine the final cause.

"The procedural decision can only be made after taking all of the evidence into consideration, including those from the examination of the crash site, the questioning of witnesses and victims (relatives), analysis such as technical, forensic chemical analysis of fuels and lubricants, and from other investigating and procedural operations," Markin explained. "The investigation is ongoing."

The criminal case is focused on determining whether anyone is responsible for violations of air safety rules and committing negligence which resulted in the deaths of 13 people. It is not yet known when the final report into the cause of the accident, described as one of the biggest mysteries in modern Russia, will be released.

The fire-damaged wreckage of the aircraft was discovered in early May in a swamp just 8 kilometers (4.9 miles) from where the aircraft took off in June 2012, further adding to the mystery as the disappearance prompted a massive search operation involving thousands of people and numerous aircraft.

Officials said the wreckage was not found earlier because the plane crashed in an area of treacherous swampland that was only accessible in May because it was still frozen. But some relatives questioned whether the crash site had been staged, arguing that plants and trees right next to the burnt wreckage were largely untouched.

Before the wreckage was eventually recovered, some relatives had appealed to investigators to determine whether Russia's Armed Forces were involved in the disappearance. But a check by senior officials found that anti-aircraft guns in a radius of 250 kilometers (155 miles) around Serov had not been used, and investigators said there was no evidence to suggest any service members were involved.

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